Shale boom brings Latin American oil bonus for Indian refiners

Written by Reuters | New Delhi | Updated: Jan 30 2014, 10:44am hrs
India's state-run refiners are snapping up Latin American oil after upgrading their plants, reaping the benefit of cheap prices for crudes that have lost their market in the US to shale oil.

Decades-old crude trading routes are being redrawn as the US cuts its dependence on imports through a boom in shale oil, forcing Latin American exporters to tap buyers as far away as China and India markets growing enough to soak up their surplus supplies.

These Latin American crudes are often heavy grades, which, without elaborate refining, tend to produce higher quantities of low-value products such as fuel oil, used to run ships' engines.

For Indian buyers, these crudes offer the chance to earn a return on the billions of dollars spent in improving their plants, enabling profits to be boosted in a regime which makes them sell products at state-capped prices. India is the world's fourth-biggest buyer of crude and 80% of its needs are met by imports, making cheap supplies crucial as its economy gropes with power shortages and it spends billions subsidising fuel for millions of its poor.

In the last few years, India has already had to find replacement crude for barrels lost when sanctions on nuclear operations hit Iran, once its second-largest supplier. Up to now, much of the switching by state refiners has been to other West Asia sources, such as Saudi Arabia and Iraq, which are now the top two suppliers as Iran slips to number six. Clear signs of a change, though, emerged earlier this month when Mangalore Refinery and Petrochemicals became the first Indian refiner to buy Argentina's medium-sweet Escalante grade.

"In 2007, we first thought of buying Latin American oil but we were not prepared," said MRPL MD PP Upadhya. "I visited Venezuela. A team of officials visited some Latin American countries in 2011. They did not have spare oil," he added. "Now, the market dynamics have changed and I got my first high acid oil cargo from the region in a tender."

And more complex facilities are coming up in the country that will further the trend.

Indian Oil's 300,000 barrels per day (bpd) Paradip refinery will start operations in June. By 2016, Chennai Petroleum's coker unit will be commissioned and a 120,000 bpd expansion of Bharat Petroleum's Kochi refinery is set to be completed.

The US has reined in buying from Latin America as its own shale oil output takes off. North America added 1 million bpd to global supply in 2013 alone, the Energy Information Agency says, and crossed the threshold to be a net exporter late last year, putting more supplies on the market. In 2005/06, Latin American oil accounted for a scant 2.3 percent, or 46,200 bpd, of India's crude imports but by 2012/13 that had jumped to about a fifth, or 672,400 bpd.

Just under half of that - 300,000 bpd - was under a long-term deal between Venezuela and privately-owned Reliance Industries, that has a huge, world-class refinery on India's west coast.

Over the same seven-year period, West Asia imports slipped to some 62% of India's basket from 73.5% while West African grades dipped to 16% from 20%.